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Keyboard Span in Old Musical Instruments: Concerning Hand Span and Overuse Problems in Pianists

Naotaka Sakai
From: Medical Problems of Performing Artists: Volume 23 Number 4: Page 169 (December 2008)

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Abstract: The keyboard spans (i.e., octave spans) of old keyboard instruments was compared with those of modern pianos to explore whether the relationship between keyboard span and hand span is a contributory factor in overuse problems among pianists. The distance on the keyboard between the left side of the C4 key and the right side of the C5 key was measured in 120 old keyboard instruments, including 26 harpsichords, 8 clavichords, 7 spinets, 4 virginals, 75 pianofortes, and 20 square pianos, manufactured from 1559 through 1929. The oldest harpsichords and pianoforte showed a keyboard span equal to that of the modern piano. In late 18th and early 19th centuries, the span diminished by 3 to 6 mm on average. In the later 19th century, the keyboard span returned to the 188-mm modern size. Unfortunately, almost all famous piano pieces composed in that 100-year period use a small keyboard, and this fact is compatible with the paradoxical situation that many modern pianists struggle with difficult piano techniques on a modern keyboard, which is broader than the old type that the 18th and 19thcentury composers used.

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